The Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy Against Mike Davis

UC Irvine history prof Mike Davis cant write a damn thing without the nuts going nuts. This time, the controversys over an obscure reference to Winston Churchill.

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This sort of errant extrapolation characterizes much of what's written about Davis. On Oct. 12, a Wall Street Journal reviewer attacked Davis for a misplaced exclamation point and then went on to cite Sutherland's column as evidence of Davis' sloppiness. Or consider an Oct. 9 review of Davis' book in our sister publication, New York City's Village Voice. There, critic Jim Lewis doesn't seem to have read Dead Cities but is nevertheless willing to make grand claims about it. Davis is "hyperbolic, careless and procrustean," "meretricious," "hasty and sloppy"; he's guilty of "grumpiness," and, if a sour disposition weren't enough, Davis also takes "self-hatred species-wide."

But has Lewis actually read the book? Not likely. Lewis disparages the book's first chapter solely on the grounds of its title: "White People Are a Bad Dream." The title, says Lewis, is "disingenuous enough, coming as it does from a white guy." But the title doesn't come from a white guy; it is a quotation from Wovoka, the Paiute spiritual leader who introduced the Ghost Dance into Native American culture at the end of the 1880s. If Lewis had read the essay, he'd have realized it isn't Davis' entry in the Self-Loathing Whitey Sweepstakes but rather an examination of the Ghost Dance, including its continuing religious significance for some Native Americans and its potential value to historians.

This chapter is of central importance because in it Davis sets out what he's trying to accomplish in the rest of Dead Cities: to turn on its head the traditional approach to the history of the American West.

Though they differ on many points, Davis says, the major schools of Western historiography "acknowledge a certain stable core regional identity and historical continuity." But "the heirs to Wovoka" reject this. As Davis recounts, they reject a belief in "the finished product, the conquered landscape, the linear historical narrative, the managed ecosystem. . . . They know the supposedly 'permanent' structures of tradition and meaning in the white West seldom endure more than a single generation . . . including our most dearly held conceptions of the West as a region." This is what Davis means by "radical contingency."

"Radical" is the key word, both in its original sense of getting to the root of the matter and because of its political connotations. Davis isn't indulging in some New Age fawning over Native Americans; he is exploring how the teachings of the Ghost Dance tradition complement the very secular tradition in which he works. "Like a certain German philosopher," he writes of Wovoka's heirs, "they are all too aware that 'all that is solid melts into air.'" Davis would expect his readers to recognize that famous line from The Communist Manifesto. It's a measure of just how eclectic and non-dogmatic Davis' radicalism is that he can blend the insights of a Paiute shaman with, among others, those of Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud and philosopher Ernst Bloch.

In his review, Lewis dwells on Dead Cities' many references to catastrophes but fails to understand what Davis is getting at. The explanation can be found in the discussion of what the Ghost Dance tradition offers the historian:

 

Wovoka, in other words, sustains his great-great-grandchildren with an apocalyptic vision of the history of the American West. Since "apocalyptic" is such an overused and cheapened term, it is important to recall its precise meaning in the Abrahamic religions. An apocalypse is literally the revelation of the Secret History of the world as becomes possible under the terrible clarity of the Last Days. It is the alternative, despised history of the subaltern classes, the defeated peoples, the extinct cultures. I am claiming, in other words, that Wovoka offers us a neo-catastrophic epistemology for reinterpreting Western history. . . . He invites us to reopen that history from the vantage point of an already visible future when sprawl, garbage, addiction, violence and simulation will have overwhelmed every vital life-space west of the Rockies.

 

This is why Davis is interested in "catastrophes" and "apocalyptic" themes: he isn't reveling in the misfortune of others but attempting to make use of the unique vantage point that can be found in the midst of the sprawl and the garbage and the violence. And far from being "a merchant of spiritless misanthropy," as Lewis calls him, Davis acknowledges the wisdom of the Ghost Dance tradition—that the "end point is also paradoxically the point of renewal and restoration."

Despite its grim title, Dead Cities is in many ways a hopeful book, recounting victories of common people against great power, pointing to positive trends like the New Urbanism, and showing how the fight for social justice can be carried on against tremendous odds. If Lewis had bothered to read the whole book, or even the first chapter beyond its title, he might have realized that. He might have even enjoyed it.

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Any scholar who writes the sort of long and complex books Davis does can expect to have colleagues discover some errors. When that happens, the worst the author might typically face is a cutting remark in some dusty journal read only by other academics, not an extended attack in a major newspaper. But Davis is used to this sort of thing. When his 1999 book, Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster, appeared on the nonfiction bestseller list, it triggered a flood of Sutherland-like criticism, including an attack on the front page of the Los Angeles Times.

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